“Think globally and act locally” may be trite catchphrase, but thinking globally can give us insight into the current feud between the Vancouver School Board and the Ministry of Education.
Faced with a $16 million budget shortfall, the Vancouver trustees, who have a mandate to meet the needs of their students, have lobbied for more provincial funding to avoid draconian service cuts. The government has refused the request, and its special advisor to the VSB criticizes trustees for engaging in “advocacy” rather than making “cost containment” first priority. [Download the special advisor’s report here.]
What kind of governing principles demand “cost containment” as the prime concern of those charged with meeting the educational needs of our children? It’s called neoliberal globalization. It is the prevailing economic paradigm in today’s world and references something everyone is familiar with—policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit.
- Rule of the market, that is, liberating free enterprise from any restrictions imposed by government, no matter the social damage that results;
- Cutting public expenditures for social services;
- Reduction of government regulation that might diminish profits;
- Privatization, selling government-owned enterprises to private investors; and
- Concepts of “the public good” or “community” are eliminated, replaced with “individual responsibility.”
The structure of the provincial funding model for education follows from these basic tenets.
The VSB, indeed all school boards and other social services in the province, are now subject to the rule of the market, thus justifying “cost containment” as the first priority of those mandated to deliver education to the public. In this context, education is treated like any other commodity. Free market competition is viewed as the route to assure a quality product. And “efficiency” or “cost containment” is prized.
In B.C., government retains its authority over public education, but no longer undertakes the responsibility of assuring the educational well-being of the public. Instead, this responsibility is devolved to individual school boards.
It is no accident that when the province appointed the special advisor to examine the Vancouver board’s budget processes, it specifically excluded the key issue raised by the trustees and every other school board in the province, the structure of the provincial funding model for education.
School boards are now expected to become part of the market by relegating the educational needs of their communities and making the financial bottom-line the first priority. The recent trend in B.C. educational policy makes this point clear. School districts have been encouraged to create business companies to sell the Dogwood diploma overseas. Lack of provincial funding has forced school and district PACs into extensive funding-raising, accounting for almost 2 per cent of district operating budgets province-wide. International student tuitions are such a major source of income growth for some school districts that government has assigned a deputy minister to coordinate the sale of B.C. education internationally.
And now the special advisor’s report recommends that the VSB close schools, cancel programs, fire teachers, and raise rental rates on non-profit organizations that provide services, such as after-school care, which are in short supply.
The clash between Vancouver trustees and the ministry of education is not “just politics.” Rather, education policy in B.C. reflects the key features of neoliberal globalization, not the least of which is the principle that more and more of our collective wealth is devoted to maximizing private profits rather than serving public needs.
[For an informative overview of how neoliberal globalization works in schools see: Schuetze, H. G., et al., (2010). Globalization, neoliberalism and schools: The Canadian story. In C. A. Torres, L. Olmos, R. Van Heertum (Eds.), Educating the global citizen: Globalization, education reform, and the politics of equity and inclusion. Oak Park, IL: Bentham eBooks. Ross, E. W., & Gibson, R. (2007). Neoliberalism and education reform. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.]